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United Airlines marked its inaugural direct flight from Houston to Sloulin Field International Airport in Williston, N.D., Aug. 19, 2014 with a splash of water. Photo courtesy of Sloulin Field International Airport.

Williston gets first direct flight from Houston

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WILLISTON, N.D. -- United Airlines’ inaugural direct flight from Houston touched down and taxied beneath a celebratory splash of water at Sloulin Field International Airport on Tuesday.

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The 50-seat flight increases United’s flights in and out of Williston to five, a move that will help, but won’t ease the crush of passengers, said airport manager Steven Kjergaard.

“Adding an additional flight will help alleviate the strain and open up different markets to us such as the oil industry,” Kjergaard said. “It’ll also add the leisure market for us in Mexico, South America and Central America.”

Delta Air Lines offers four flights per day, which makes a total of nine flights for the Oil Patch airport that has boomed along with the oil and gas industry and the local population.

Williston has had 62,682 boardings through July, running more 10,000 boardings ahead of the same period in 2013. For July, the 9,323 boardings at Williston were triple what the airport had for boardings in the entire year of 2005.

For Mike Clynes, a project director for Texas-based MBA Construction, the direct flight from Houston to Williston is the “way to go.” He said he travels to Williston one to two times each month, facilitating support to oil and gas projects.

“It’s easier, more efficient and quicker. It allows us to produce more work for the oil and gas industry,” he said.

Williston City Commission Chris Brostuen said the direct flight was a great deal, one that signals a positive step for the city.

“It kind of reflects back to when the FAA administrator was here. He talked about airlines being the engine for economic growth and commerce. I think this is a good example of that. It's moving business people, industry people from Texas directly to Williston,” he said.

July marked another record month for boardings in North Dakota, posting 111,058 passengers, an increase of 8.5 percent over last year. That’s nearly double from the boardings in July 2005.

“The airports in western North Dakota continue to show large increases in passenger numbers, however the eastern airports have been busy as well,” Kyler Wanner, director of the North Dakota Aeronautics Commission, said in a statement.

Kjergaard said the Williston airport and terminal cannot serve all its potential customers without an expansion or a brand new facility.

He said if everything goes well, the goal is for a new airport to be opened by 2017.

The FAA has made initial comments on an environmental assessment submitted by the airport, Kjergaard said, adding that a public hearing will be taking place in the near future.

“We'll also have our preferred alternative site out in that public comment period, so we'll be able to show you and speak about what that preferred alternative is. We're still on track to have the environmental assessment done by the end of this year,” Kjergaard said.

The options include expansion of the existing airport, a site about a mile off the city’s truck bypass and a site about eight miles to the north of the current site and then three miles to the west.

Kjergaard said he hopes to begin purchasing land next year from landowners, some who have “questions about everything” and others who may be reluctant to sell their land.

“There's some that could possibly hold us up. They don't want to sell, a lot of it's been in their family a long time,” he said.

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